UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Role of Egerton Ryerson in the development of public library service in Ontario Stubbs, Gordon Thomas


Egerton Ryerson is remembered today mainly as an educational reformer and religious leader. His work in connection with the public library movement in Ontario has received little attention. Yet Ryerson himself attached great importance to the provision of free libraries for the general public, as an extension and completion of the school system. His object was to ensure that all citizens, both young and old, would be able to enjoy the fruits of education. A study of the library system introduced by Ryerson is needed to shed light on a neglected aspect of his career. At the same time, it fills a gap by furnishing a connected account of public library history in Ontario from 1844 to 1876. For source material, the chief documentary items are found in various works edited by J.G. Hodgins. Ryerson's own Annual Reports provide an abundance of valuable information. A search of newspapers and periodicals of the period has revealed some pertinent articles, which have been particularly useful in gauging the reaction in Ryerson's contemporaries to his library scheme. The scheme was first formulated by Ryerson in his 1846 Report, two years after he became Superintendent of Education for Upper Canada. It was given government approval in 1850. School trustees and municipal councils were authorized to start libraries in their communities, and money could be raised for the purpose by an assessment on property. Many of the libraries were placed in school buildings, though they were intended to be used by the adult population of the surrounding district as well as by the students. Local initiative was emphasized. Once a library became established, a government grant was available for the purchase of books, on a matching basis with funds raised locally. All the books had to be selected from a list of authorized publications compiled and annotated by Ryerson, known as the General Catalogue. They were supplied at cost price from a central Depository in Toronto. Most of them came from British and American publishing firms. For about twenty years, the libraries grew and flourished. In I850 free public library service was unknown in Upper Canada. By 1870 there were over a thousand libraries circulating a quarter of a million volumes. The success of the scheme was partly due to the energetic backing Ryerson gave it. After his retirement in 1876, the libraries declined rapidly. Government support was withdrawn, and given instead to the libraries of the Mechanics' Institutes. Of all Ryerson's enterprises, this was one of the few that did not survive. Its collapse was due partly to dissatisfaction with the material available in the General Catalogue, and partly to public apathy. There was also strong opposition from Canadian publishers, who resented the Department of Education buying books in bulk from foreign sources. Even though the libraries disappeared, Ryerson's efforts had not been wasted. During his lifetime, the project filled an important need, and much praise was accorded to it at all levels of society. It was the first real attempt in Canada to extend free library service to the whole population. Though changed in direction during the final quarter of the nineteenth century, the movement started by Ryerson continued to advance at a steady pace through the work of the Mechanics' Institutes.

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